Nelson McMakin's Hot Cha Cha, under a ground-saving ride from James Graham, held off defending champion Acoma by a three-quarters of a length to win the 34th running of the $110,800 Early Times Mint Julep (Grade III) for fillies and mares at Churchill Downs on Saturday afternoon.
Longshot Winter's Circle led the field of six through early fractions of :25.44 and :49.32 with My Baby Baby in closest pursuit and favored Keertana and Hot Cha Cha lingering another length back. My Baby Baby took over leaving the backstretch and Keertana made the first run at her, taking the lead as the field turned for home.
At the head of the lane, Graham moved Hot Cha Cha to the inside of Winter's Circle and had clear sailing along the hedge. My Baby Baby surrendered at the eighth pole leaving only Keertana to catch for Hot Cha Cha, who did so in the final 100 yards.
Acoma, under Corey Lanerie in her 2010 debut, rallied from four lengths back in midstretch to just miss catching Hot Cha Cha, who covered the 1 1/16 miles on a firm Matt Winn Turf Course in 1:43.27.
The stakes victory was the first at Churchill Downs for Graham as well as trainer Phil Sims, who has Hot Cha Cha stabled at his home base at Keeneland.
Carrying 120 pounds, two fewer than Acoma, Hot Cha Cha returned $5.20, $3 and $2.20. Acoma returned $4.20 and $2.60 and 7-5 favorite Keertana, finishing a head back in third under Jon Court, paid $2.10 to show. It was 4 ½ lengths back to My Baby Baby, who was followed in order by Winter's Circle and Absolutely Cindy. Hooh Why, Grande Annee and Danzon were scratched.
A 4-year-old homebred daughter of Cactus Ridge out of the Broad Brush mare Reduced Sentence, Hot Cha Cha improved her career record to 15-6-2-3 with earnings of $726,717 with Saturday's check of $68,009. It was the fourth graded stakes victory for Hot Cha Cha, whose marquee triumph came in last fall's Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (GI) at Keeneland.
Racing at Churchill Downs resumes Sunday with a 10-race program that begins at 12:45 p.m. (EDT). There's a two-day Pick 6 carryover of $12,396 on races 5-10.
EARLY TIMES MINT JULEP HANDICAP QUOTES
JAMES GRAHAM (jockey, HOT CHA CHA, winner): "Got a perfect trip. I got her to settle in, got the split up the fence and on she went and finished. We just stalked and tried to get as clean as trip as we possibly could. She's a classy filly, a Grade One winner and she showed it today. I was watching Brian's horse (jockey Brian Hernandez Jr.'s mount My Baby Baby) around the first turn. He was wanting to step out a little bit so I said, ‘Well, when he squeezes horse, hopefully he goes outward.' He did and I got the lovely ride up the fence and it was over."
PHIL SIMS (trainer, HOT CHA CHA, winner): "It was a good race. We got a great trip with (jockey) James (Graham) and he kept her out of trouble which helped us out. We beat some nice fillies in Acoma and Keertana, so we are very proud of her race today. I was a little worried about the pace up front with the scratches because there really was not much pace in the race. But James kept her close and relaxed and that helped us out today. Right now, the Beverly D. (Grade I, $750,000 Beverly D. for fillies and mares at 1 3/16 miles on turf at Arlington Park on Aug. 21) is what we are looking at. The Modesty (Grade III, $200,000 Modesty for fillies and mares at 1 3/16 miles on turf at Arlington Park on July 17) and possibly the Locust Grove Handicap at Churchill (Grade III, $100,000-added Locust Grove for fillies and mares at one mile on turf on July 3) are possible races as well. We will take her back to Keeneland tonight."
COREY LANERIE (jockey, ACOMA, second): "I had a good trip. My filly was a little flat today for some reason. I was further back than expected. I thought she would be a little keen coming off the layoff but she relaxed too good for me and we had too much to do turning for home."
DAVID CARROLL (trainer, ACOMA, second): "She ran super. I'm very happy with her effort today. She had no help on the front end, but still ran a great race. She was relaxed and keen when (jockey) Corey (Lanerie) asked and her classed showed today. We were hoping for a little more pace on the front end, but of course the horses scratched that would have helped us out on the front end. We are proud of her, being this was her first race back."
JON COURT (jockey, KEERTANA, third as the 7-5 favorite): "I had a perfect trip. There was a nice, comfortable pace in front of me and come time to go I thought we would win. She made the lead real handily but down the final furlong we didn't have enough to pull away. I studied the previous race when (jockey) Garrett (Gomez) rode her - I was in the race as well - and she kicked away by three or four lengths. I was expecting something similar because of the slow pace. When we turned for home, I thought I had plenty of horse underneath me."